It’s difficult to not read this opening episode as a meta-commentary on the state of the series itself. With all the challenges facing an adaptation that has now outpaced its source material, there was hope that Season Six of Game of Thrones would be the one where it finally could both test and demonstrate the storytelling capabilities of David Benioff and Dan Weiss.
If there’s a complaint to be made over the previous seasons – aside from the disappointingly problematic handling of sexual violence – it’s that the show seemed stifled by the books. They had the feeling of the early Harry Potter films: fancy paint-by-numbers recreations of key scenes, characters and locations. As a result, the show rarely felt stitched together, rarely felt like there was organic character development built into the plot, and in a way that was thematically unified. It’s also a problem of the books, in that they increasingly felt like the characters were quite literally chess pieces on George R. R. Martin’s game board, servicing a role and a plot rather than actually generating it.
And it’s in the moments when the show has deviated that it has often seemed strongest. And for a season entirely about deviations, there is much promise.
So it’s rather interesting that much of the first episode this season is basically scenes of characters standing over corpses. There’s Davos and Edd, looking over the late, lamented Jon Snow. Then Ramsay showing rare emotion for Myranda. Jaime returning to Cersei with recently-poisoned Myrcella, and Ellaria and Tyene gloating over the still bleeding bodies of Doran and Areo Hotah.
But other than that, not much seems to happen. Is this a wake?
If so, what has died?
We’re journeying wholesale into rumour, speculation and alternate storytelling of GRRM’s series, and of all these dead bodies only one of them truly belongs to his books: Jon Snow. The one hook that captivated the fans between Season Five and Season Six, and his corpse bookends the episode, serving almost as a symbolic acknowledgement of GRRM’s written efforts. They are finished, dead to the show, and can offer no clues as to how to revive them. All around, people stand wondering what to do.
It’s almost how one imagines the writers’ room on the show.
Where do we go now? Edd gets the direwolf, then runs to the Wildlings, but nothing is achieved. Davos plays for time with Alliser Thorne, and Melisandre is, for the first time, at a loss. It’s kind of nice to see the characters having to think. Having to struggle and realise that there is no clear way forward. We’re off the map.
Melisandre’s not-unexpected reveal of her glamour and ‘true’ age made for a nice meditation on this state of affairs for the show. On one hand, it’s almost an after-the-fact declaration. She might as well put her cards on the table now because the story she felt she was in is over. There’s no point in hiding anymore.
On the other hand, there could be a sense of self-sacrifice here. A moment of rare emotional weakness where she perhaps only has herself to sacrifice now. Gendry, Shireen, Stannis – all bought and sold for nothing – and now Jon is dead.
This is also an indication of the series showing its hand as well: the magic that has crept around the edges is finally standing in front of us. Slowly, steadily emerging over the seasons – from the dragons, to the smoke-baby, then the rise of the White Walkers – all pretences are gone; we’re in fantasy land now.
Additionally, there was another, subtler movement from the background to the foreground: the women.
Dorne is quite rightly dispatched (possibly as a visceral reaction to that location’s treatment last season), leaving only Ellaria and her Sand Snakes to stake their claim on vengeance. Daenerys, back with the Dothraki and almost running the risk of driving this character backwards after standing still for two seasons, actually shows some development. This is no Khal Drogo redux: she claims her own position. And while she is seemingly relegated to Vaes Dothrak, there’s hope she will liberate the Dothraki women in the way she has liberated slaves. Sansa is highlighted not only as a survivor, but one worth serving and pledging fealty to. The scene with Brienne kneeling, and Sansa unsure of the words until prompted by Podrick, was the most welcome indication that the series has been slowly, steadily working to a more positive resolution for its younger generation. They don’t know their roles just yet, but they’re growing into them.
So too with Arya, even though she was given barely any time in the episode, or any assistance with her blindness, but she’s working for her role now. The petulance is going, the expectation that she will just become no-one has given way to acceptance that she needs to learn.
The characters are finding their way, and so too are the writers.
However, we still did need to wander the streets of Meereen – in better company, it’s worth noting – but the tiredness of Tyrion and Varys’ stroll, and the burning of the docks suggest that the city too will be dispatched perhaps as readily as Dorne has been. Time to move on.
So at some point Jon Snow may rise, but it feels as if this will be almost by accident now, as those sympathetic characters still left alive may realise just how much the story lies in their hands, and in their actions. This, I feel, is a good thing for the direction of the show.